What to Expect from City Garden: are Parks Downtown’s Next Silver Bullet?

The Washington Post has a story today titled "City parks, bringing urban centers back to life," featuring Detroit's Campus Martius, Houston's Discovery Green and City Garden in St. Louis. It seems that for some the search for a downtown silver bullet never ends. The author states that today's downtown parks are serving, "a role previously assigned to the '80s-era performing arts center and the '90s-era downtown sports venue."

This is very likely the expectation, or at least hope, of many. In St. Louis, downtown's savior was the Arch grounds, then the Gateway Mall, the Spanish Pavilion, a revitalized Union Station and St. Louis Center (and I'm sure I've missed a few). Now it's a better Gateway Mall, the renovated Peabody Opera House, a new baseball stadium and Ballpark Village. And if downtown parks are to be "charged with spurring development and creating downtowns that are places to live, not just work," St. Louis is about to see this effort writ large with the $300M+ redevelopment of the Arch grounds.

To be sure, some will explain that parks are different than the come-and-gone solutions of the past, that they can serve everyone, be a community gathering point and object of civic pride, unlike a shopping mall, or even an oft-silent sports stadium. Maybe. But clearly, too much hope is being placed on a single solution. St. Louis Deputy Mayor for Development Barbara Geisman is quoted in the story saying City Garden is "one of the best things to happen in downtown in many decades." We can't know the the future impact of City Garden today, but my first reaction is to think this is quite an overstatement.

Perhaps the idea of City Garden being one of the best things to happen in "many decades" speaks to how little has happened downtown. And it of course overlooks the historic renovation, new Washington Avenue and the emergence of a residential community. Then again, maybe a two-block park and sculpture garden can be transformative. Will we be able to measure this positive impact? How and when will we be able to know the effects of City Garden? And if it can be transformative, what impact can be expected of $300M or more spent in and around the St. Louis Arch? Are parks what will save downtown St. Louis?

I love City Garden and visit often with my family. I take every out-of-town guest there. But it hasn't transformed St. Louis for me or the visitors I take there. The Washington Post story says that urban parks such as the High Line in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago "serve as desserts added to the already laden menus of residents and tourists," while stating, "it seems that new parks in other cities are burdened with a much more challenging mandate." I understand the point being made, but City Garden isn't the main course for a St. Louis resident or visitor. It's a nice addition, it's a wonderful place.

We should celebrate City Garden and we should be excited by the changes coming to the Arch grounds, but our expectations for transformation should be tempered greatly. A couple billion dollars of development over the past decade hasn't made downtown St. Louis the thriving and growing center of our region. The public library renovation and reopening of the Peabody Opera House won't do it either. And neither will transforming every block of the Gateway Mall, as the masterplan envisions.

Maybe parks and projects like City Garden are the result of a community with a greater focus on downtown. Maybe parks are a symptom of an improving community and driver of building that community. If this were true, City Garden and other efforts may carry even more meaning than "solutions" of the past. Whether a result or a driver, it is very clear that St. Louis is once again focused on downtown.

So let's add City Garden to our already laden menu of things to see and places to go, celebrate the Gateway Foundation and its wonderful contribution to our city, but recognize that it takes consistent and varied improvement, constant redevelopment and imagination to make a downtown a great place for residents, visitors and businesses alike.